Thursday, February 28, 2013


Making betel leaf rolls

My remaining three days in Burma were spent in Yangon, the former British capital (then Rangoon) of Burma that sits on the Yangon River about an hour or so from where the ship is docked.  It has a population of about six million, but has few skyscrapers and lots of trees, making it seem more provincial than international.  The downtown has wide, paved streets and old British style buildings.  We walked from the Strand Hotel, the oldest in town at 110 years, past the post office, city hall, Sule Pagoda, and Independence Monument.  There was a small market selling lots of betel leaf.  The leaf is wrapped around a mix of betel nut, lime paste, and tobacco and chewed.  It causes oral cancer, loose teeth, and red mouths but is still popular with some.

Downtown Yangon

We went on to Kandawgyi Park. a beautiful lake that holds the Royal Barge, now a floating restaurant.  Next we went to see the reclining buddha statue, not as large as the one I saw yesterday but a much prettier face.  He was built in 1901 of brick and cement.  After a good Burmese lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, we checked into our hotel.  I have my own room, which overlooks the lake.  There is wifi in the rooms, a real luxury after going without for a few weeks.

Royal barge

Civic Center

View from my hotel room

Reclining Buddha

We got to relax a little before heading out to the 2200 year old Shwedagon Pagoda, a magnificent complex in a beautiful park.  It was founded by two brothers who were apparently given four hairs by Buddha, which are enshrined in the Pagoda.  We spent an hour walking around the 450 foot tall Pagoda.  I met an OAT tour and talked with them about their journey.  Some of them were very interested in going on Semester at Sea.  My burnt feet are much better today.  At the end we got to light a whole section of lamps in front of the Pagoda, which is lit up beautifully at night.  Dinner was at Le Plana, an outdoor French restaurant on the grounds of an old mansion.  It was new agey, with minimal food and maximal presentation.  We had a shrimp appetizer, pork, plus ice cream for dessert.  I have no idea what it costs, but the cars in the parking lot were very luxe and the people well dressed.  I felt very plebeian coming in a tour bus and wearing a T shirt.

The next morning we stopped at a nunnery and saw all the little girls in their pink outfits gathered to say goodbye to a schoolmate who was leaving.  The buddhists apparently educate the girls, as well, but separately.  We then went to the Kaleywa monastery.  This is a more advanced school and has girls as well, but mostly boys.  It has over 1000 students, who study math, science, reading and writing, as well as religion.  They rise at 5 or 6 a.m. to chant and study, then go to pursue, usually at a prearranged place so the same people are not giving food all the time.  It is part of the religion to give food to the monks.  They can't eat solid food after noon.  The rest of the day they read, sleep and chant.  After 5 or 6 years they decide if they want to remain a monk or go out into the world.  There are 500,000 monks and about 60,000 nuns in Burma.

We went in a large room with some of the junior monks and nuns and they told us about their life.  We sang and danced for them (macarena and hokey pokey, which seem to be the standards everyone knows) and they sang for us.  Then we went to visit a classroom.  The rooms are huge, so I am surprised those in the back can see the small blackboard or hear the lesson.  They were taking a physics exam, but we went around and gave all the students gifts of workbooks and pens.  It must have been quite distracting while they were working problems with pencils and protractors.  They just moved the gifts and went on with the tests.  One of our students took a step backward and accidentally fell through a hole in the wooden floor.  His knee was lodged in and they had to pry out another floorboard to get him out.  I did first aid to the big scratches on both sides of his knee.

nuns and monks taking a physics test

Ed through the floorboard

Monks lined up for lunch

Meditation center

Next the students lined up in two seemingly endless lines.  We got in groups of two to man the different food stations.  On each side there was one for rice, next a cooked vegetable mixture, then a kind of cole slaw, then fruit.  The native ladies dished up small bowls, which we then dumped into the larger containers the students carried down the lines.  It took about an hour to dish everything up.  
We then got to sit down for our own lunch.

In the afternoon we went to a meditation center.  The people either sit or walk VERY slowly around the room to meditate.  A buddhist meditation master met with us and explained meditation.  

We walked around Chinatown before going to dinner at the Sky Bistro on the 22nd floor of the Sokum tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city.  The views were incredible.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Unlike other large cities I have visited in Asia, Burma feels very third world.  95% of the men wear longyis, a wrap around skirt.  There are shiny golden temple spires all over. 

 I took a day excursion to Bago, a capital in the 13th century.  It was supposed to be a two hour drive but it took 3 1/2 hours to get there, even with only one pit stop.  The roads are narrow and it is easy to get stuck behind slow traffic.  

Our first stop was the Kha Khat Wain Monastery, one of the largest in Burma and a school for monks.  They come to take a five year course in religion before going back to their home territories as career monks.  Most male Burmese buddhists spend a couple of years in monasteries, often to pursue regular education, but the ones here concentrate on religion.  They are not allowed to eat solid food after noon, and we were supposed to be there to help feed them.  Alas, by the time we got there, there were only empty tables, except for three elders having there meal in a corner.

No monks to be seen
Except the three elders

And the clean up crew

By this time, we were hungry, so we skipped the next thing on the schedule and went directly to lunch at the Hanthawaddy Restaurant, which was very nice.

Next we went to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, over 1000 years old and with a spire higher than the main Pagoda in Yangon.  We got there so late that the tiles on the ground around the Pagoda were like frying pans.  Of course we had to go barefoot.  I walked all the way around the thing, resulting in feet that felt more like fried eggs.

Shwemadaw Pagoda
I could barely walk now due to burned feet, but made it out of the bus to see the next attraction, the Reclining Buddha, at Tha Lyaung Pagoda.  This is from 994 but was supposedly taken over by the jungle and not rediscovered until the British put the railway through in 1890.  It is one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world.

Mon house made of reeds
We were still behind schedule and decided to skip the market in favor of the Mon village, the only village of this tribe in the area and known for its weaving.  We wanted to see it before it was spoiled by tourists, since the next few years are probably going to bring big changes to Burma.  Alas, it was a holiday and almost everyone had gone to the temple.  We got to walk around the village and see the houses and dormant weaving equipment, but it was sadly flat with no people there.

Our last stop was at the War Memorial Cemetery on the way back to the ship.  It has 2700 graves of Allied Forces fallen in WWII.  It is beautifully kept up.  It flunked as a loo stop, though, as only one toilet, and that didn't flush.

WWII allied graves

War memorial
We got back just in time for dinner on the ship.  Out of ten hours on the tour, six were spent driving to and from Bago.  I saw few monks, Mons, and have burnt feet.  Not the best day.

Monday, February 25, 2013


We had a smooth sail from Singapore through the Straits of Malacca to the Andaman Sea, then up the Irawaddy River Delta to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma).  On the way to Burma we had a memorial service for the professor who died in Shanghai.  This consisted of the ship doing an infinity pattern on the ocean and the passengers and crew throwing out red roses into the wake.  Quite remarkable, but hopefully not something I will do again. 

Burma just recently opened to American tourists.  The former socialist government wanted to wipe out traces of colonization so changed the names back to pre-British ones, but the people still use the old names.   They even changed the road right of way from left to right in the 60's.  Even today most of the cars on the road have right hand drive, so the driver is on the same side as the curb.  

This country was a British colony for 100 years until the Japanese took over in WWII.  They achieved independence under General Aung Son, but he and his cabinet were assassinated soon after. 
  The military took over and ruled with an iron hand for 40 years, during which the economy was mainly driven by nepotism and cronies of the military.  They kept Aung Son Soo Ki, the daughter of the late general, under house arrest for 20 years, during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She missed seeing her daughters grow up and her husband pass away in England while she remained in Burma.  During this time the world, with the exception of China, pretty much boycotted Burma due to human rights issues.  The government finally allowed elections for 55 seats out of 600 in the parliament in 2011, and 50 of those went to Aung Son Soo Ki's National League for Democracy.  The next elections will be in 2015, and hopefully the country will go further into democracy if the military does not crack down on it.

The government is now considered a semi-democracy.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have visited in the past year, and the US Chamber of Commerce is here this week.  Four Burmese banks have just been approved for financial dealings with US banks, so money should start flowing.  Most of the major hotels here used to be owned by cronies, but there are now very nice hotels run by foreign companies.  They had one million tourists last year and expect nine million in 2020.  There is a lot of discussion on how to grow responsible tourism without damaging the beauty and cultural heritage of the country.  They don't want a lot of cheap "backpacker" type hotels and become like Thailand, so licenses to accommodate foreigners are controlled.

We were supposed to dock at 8 a.m., but they delayed us till 4 p.m. so they could dredge the river.  It seems very shallow as we were sure churning up a lot of mud on the way in.  There is no way they could take in large cruise ships.  We did not clear customs till about 6 p.m., so I will start my adventure in Burma tomorrow.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


My last day in Singapore I went to the Singapore Zoo, which is supposed to be the largest in Asia.  It was very well done, with large open habitats for the animals.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Two days sailing brought us to Singapore.  It is a very modern city with standard of living and average income above the US.  It has no resources of its own but has been able to succeed because of its location (the busiest port in the world) and its emphasis on education and technological innovation.  It is a major oil refiner and high tech manufacturer.  The cost of living is high.  A 500 square foot apartment can cost $2,000 a month.  A VW Passat costs $150,000, in part because of 100% tax and an $80,000 permit to get a car.  Quite the encouragement to use public transportation.

Military service is compulsory for males at age 18.  If they fail the physical tests they go in three months early to get in shape.  Then they serve 11 years in the reserve with two weeks to a month commitment each year.  The government feels this fosters discipline, teamwork, and leadership.  Girls can volunteer, but usually they just come out two years ahead of the guys at university or in the job market.

Singapore was a British colony from 1819 to 1959.  It became part of Malaysia but gained independence  in 1965.  In the 1960's the country was labor intensive, in the 70's emphasis was put on upgrading skills, in the 80's on bringing in capital, in the 90's on technology, and at present on knowledge and innovation.  It seems to perfectly fit Thomas Friedman's model of what the US needs to do, but is much further along.  The country has no debt.

The government consists of one party and has "guided" democracy.  There are four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil.  Racial agitation is not tolerated.  Jehovah's Witnesses and Falun Gong are not welcome.  They have fines, jail time and caning for anti-social behavior like smoking, spitting, littering, and jaywalking.  It is illegal to bring in chewing gum.  Drug offenses mean the death penalty.  The upside of this is that it is a very clean and safe country.  We will see if our kids manage to leave here with no major incidents.  SAS kids in the past have been jailed and caned.  I think alcohol was involved.

Biopolis directory-those funny names are buildings
Today my Biology class had a field trip to One North, so named because Singapore is one degree north of the Equator.  This is a huge research and development complex with biomedical and science and technology arms.  It also includes universities, a media wing, residences, and a huge park.  The government offers $1 billion per year of funding, and most of the major drug and biotech companies have stakes here.  They partner with major universities worldwide.  They have funded about 10,000 students for PhD's at local and foreign universities.

We started at Fusionopolis, which does technological research.  It felt like walking into a space ship.  We saw some of the things they are working on.  They try to translate the research into useful things and spin off commercially viable research into separate companies.  One of the spin off companies makes eyeglasses out of recycled material, another video games for brain injured people to retrain their brains, another hospital beds that alarm when a patient is not breathing normally or need to turn over.

View from Fusionopolis

Our Professor Garrett and Biopolis scientists

We next went to nearby Biopolis, which fosters deep integration of computational biology, biotechnology, biology, and genetics.  They were set up in 2000.  When the SARS scare happened in 2003, they were the first to sequence the first three cases, then compared them to subsequent cases to get the trajectory of the disease before working with Roche to develop a diagnostic test, all within two weeks.    They work on genetic and stem cell projects to personalize treatments to make them faster and more effective.  I could go on and on, but will just say what they are doing here is huge.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013


I cannot be in Vietnam without thinking of the Vietnam War, which was such a big part of my teen and college years.  It is called the American War here.  The people here are very friendly and you would think we had not been at war with them for 25 years,  pretty much destroyed their country and left a whole lot of orphans, as well as unintended offspring of American soldiers.  

I visited the War museum, which is slanted to their take on it, of course.  There are pictures of people protesting the war all over the world.  I knew we were protesting in the US, but it did not really sink in at the time how unpopular the war was in other countries.  The exhibit on war photography featured pictures by western news media and I had seen many of them before, but it doesn't lessen their impact.  It also noted that 73 Western photographers died in the war.  There was writing on the wall with quotes from various people, such as General Curtis LeMay's "Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age" and President Eisenhower's statement that the tin and tungsten in Vietnam was needed for security reasons (like oil in Iraq?).  They also had the part of the Geneva Accords (1954) up that stated that no foreign powers would intervene or establish a base in Vietnam.

War Remnants Museum

On another floor was an exhibit about Agent Orange with pictures of the damage it caused, as well as of many children born subsequently, in Vietnam and the US, with horrible birth defects.  This actually made me feel worse than the museum in Hiroshima, because I felt some personal guilt that I didn't feel about the bombing in WWII, probably because I wasn't alive then.  Did the Germans feel this way when they learned the full extent of the Holocaust?  Why do things like this keep happening?

At the end I saw a video made during the war of villagers trying to cope.  It was definitely propaganda, but broke my heart seeing the children going to school in trenches.  They had to carry a homemade first aid kit and made straw hats to protect themselves from bomb blasts.  No wonder those kids became soldiers and sympathizers when they got older.  Their country was under siege, whether they lived in the North or the South.

The next day I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour and a half out of town in a rural area.  The tunnels are famous for hiding thousands of  Viet Cong during the wars against both the French and the Americans.  They extend 200 kms and go between the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Saigon River.  There are three floors, a cooking room, areas for munitions storage and manufacturing, a school, a hospital, and a deep well (the above ground water was contaminated with Agent Orange).  We saw examples of the hidden entrances, the pit traps for the enemy, and leafy trenches for above ground protection.  The people were farmers by day and soldiers by night.  They could launch attacks then seemingly disappear.  They were tenacious and clever.  A video showed teenage girls getting medals for killing multiple Americans.  

Model of tunnels

Hole too small for most Americans

The tunnels are very small but some have been enlarged ("Burger King sized", according to our guide) for tourists.  They also had an area where visitors could pay extra to shoot an AK47, and M16, or an M60.  I have experience with the last two from my time in the Army, but some of the guys took advantage of the opportunity.  Only one girl, though.  Guns have always been a fascination for guys and I don't know why.

At the end of the tour we sat at outside tables and had a "soldier meal" of cooked cassava and a sugar/salt dipping mixture.  After that we went back to Ho Chi Minh City and had lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant including tempura spinach, boiled spinach, rice paper wrapped vegetable rolls, chicken and onion, sticky rice with mung beans, and custard pudding.  Not as good as the cooking school food, but still delicious.

Rice at lunch came in a nice package

Finally, a pic with Desmond Tutu
Vietnam SAS stats:  Zero people drugged, 35 robbed, 18 credit cards stolen or lost, one passport lost (later found), 5 people hit by motorbikes (no serious injuries), two leg burns, many cases of traveler's diarrhea.  Twenty nine cell phones were lost or stolen phones, 100% of which were I phones.  These seem to be an incredible target.  A lot of people get them whisked out of their hands by people on passing motorcycles while standing on a curb looking at their phones instead of their surroundings.  Hopefully this statistic will decrease, especially as the passengers are running out of phones.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I don't know what it is about Vietnamese food, but it tastes different from anything else.  The main thing I think of is freshness, like nothing came out of a box but straight trom the farm or sea.  And it always tastes good.
Tools to get started.  Chop, chop.

I took a cooking class at Hoa Tuc restaurant in Saigon.  Instead of just watching the cook prepare food, the 12 of us each got our own cutting board, knife, etc and repeated everything he did.  We used some vegetables I was not familiar with, like mustard leaves, lotus stems, bon bon, tine vua, kumquats, and mung beans. We stir fried, deep fried, barbecued, mashed, cut, diced, etc.  In the end, we made three dishes:  mustard leave rolls with crunchy vegetables and prawns, fried sticky rice fritters with pork and carrot, and rice noodle with BBQ pork and vegetable salad.  I will give you the salad dressing recipe:

8 tablespoons kumquat juice (we used the fresh fruit and squeezed)
2 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons chopped garlic
4 teaspoons minced red chili (medium spicy)

Mix all ingredients, stirring well until sugar is dissolved.

Mustard leaf rolls with prawns and vegetables.  Yummy!

I learned that fish sauce comes in different strengths, and a higher number is less water and more fish sauce.  He used number 60, which I think is the highest strength.

If you are really lucky, I will make some of these dishes for you when I get back to the US.

Teacher/chef shows us how to deep fry rice balls
Enjoying the barbecued pork salad

The next day my roommate Susan and I took the shuttle to town and wandered around the Ben Tranh market for about three hours.  This is an indoor market about the size of two Walmarts.  On one side is food, from fresh fruits and vegetables to fish, meat, snails (the French influence), etc.  The meat is butchered and hangs on hooks, but the chickens are alive and the fish and shrimp are still wriggling.  This is fresh!  We also went down the narrow aisles looking at clothes, art, hats, shoes, etc.  Whatever else you can think of, it was probably there.

I bought a shirt from these girls in the market

Fresh prawns, still wiggling

We stopped at a few tailoring places to see about getting some clothes made.  I love the aio dais, those sleek calf length, long sleeved tops slit up to the waist over long pants.  Unfortunately, I don't think they were meant for me.  I settled for buying a new silk shirt.

We went back to the ship for lunch, but I returned to town later to get a manicure/pedicure for $12.  My friend said she got both for $8.  One thing I noticed is that they don't use lotion when they do the hand and leg massage, which I didn't like.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Getting from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call it Saigon) involved three days and then several more hours sailing up the Mekong Delta.  The skyline of Saigon probably looks similar to what it did in the 60's; nothing like Shanghai, where they seem to put up a new skyscraper every week.  Of course, we did such damage to the country that a lot had to be rebuilt before they could think about skyscrapers.

They obviously had a severe inflation problem, since one US dollar equals 21,000 Vietnamese dong.  It makes you feel like a millionaire until you actually try to buy something.  When I got 10,000 in change I felt pretty good, until I realized it was only about 50 cents.  They do not even have coins.

We are here during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations (Tet).  This is good in that there is much less death defying traffic, but bad in that many places are closed.  They use a lot of flowers to decorate for New Year's, so the city looks very festive.  It is like seeing Rose Parade floats all over.

Water puppets
I took an all day tour of Saigon.  We went to the History Museum and got an overview of Vietnamese history.  Hanoi is 1000 years old and Saigon is only 300 years old.  We learned that the Vietnamese have always been good at guerrilla warfare and were able to repel the Mongols three times.  They were taken over by the Chinese for 1000 years, so many of the artifacts seem Chinese in style.

The History Museum also had a water puppet show, supposedly put on the way it would have been done in the 12th century.  The front pool is filled with water and the puppeteers behind the curtain manipulate the puppets with long rods.  This was not as good as the water puppet show I saw about ten years ago in Hanoi, where the puppeteers wore black suits and actually got under the water and swam around with the puppets, but was still entertaining.

The Reunification Palace was built by the French but rebuilt after being bombed in 1962.  The French controlled Vietnam from 1858 until the Japanese took over in 1940.  The latter are not well liked since they exploited the Vietnamese and 2 million people died, mostly of famine.  The British liberated the Vietnamese but the French stepped in and reclaimed Indochina until being defeated in 1954.   The subsequent Geneva Accords declared Vietnam independent and forbade interference by third powers.  UN monitored free elections were supposed to be held in 1954 but the US stepped in and halted them because the Cold War was going on and they were afraid the country would become Communist (Wikipedia says the Soviets halted the elections.).  Thus the whole region would become Communist according to the domino theory.  Ho Chi Minh, a popular leader in both North and South Vietnam,  admired the US Constitution and reached out to America but got no response because of the fear of communism running rampant in the US at the time.  The US supported President Diem in the South, a Catholic who apparently persecuted people of other faiths, particularly Buddhists.  After ten years he was assassinated and the US propped up some other dictators until the government in the south fell in 1975.  Of course the tale is very slanted toward the Vietnamese viewpoint, but they don't overplay the American aggression the way they could.  The statistics range from 3 to 4 million Vietnamese killed in the war, and about 58,000 Americans.  This is terrible whichever side you are on, but we were destroying their people and their country, not the other way around.  Those millions of dollars and thousands of young men could have been put to better use.
Reunification Palace

1960's era radios
War room

Helicopter on roof for quick getaways

President's meeting room.  Note raised chair for him, which  our President Washington had refused.

We then went to the Notre Dame Cathedral, a stone edifice built by the French in 1880 and looking like it belongs in a city in Europe.  This was closed, but we went across the street to the Post Office, also colonial French and looking like an ornate train station.  They have the names of famous inventors along the front and include Benjamin Franklin, a former American ambassador to France who was apparently quite a favorite there, especially with the ladies.

Post Office

Cao Dai Temple
Our next stop was the Cao Dai temple, built in  Chinese-Vietnamese style with a variety of other architectural influences. The nave has columns decorated with dragons and many statues.  The colors are unusual, with a lot of turquoise, pink and yellow.   Above the altar hangs a giant sphere containing the divine eye of Cao Dai with an eternal flame. Cao Dai's religious philosophy is a blend of Asian religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) mixed with Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, as well as animism and Theosophy.  It originated in Vietnam but is practiced in many other countries, including the USA.  A service was going on, with all of the participants dressed in white from head to toe.

Electrical system-which wire goes where

We stopped for lunch at Dong Khanh Restaurant in Chinatown.  This was supposed to be a typical Vietnamese lunch but seemed Chinese to me.  I tried the local beer, "333," which was quite good.

Cha Tam Church
After lunch, we stopped at Cha Tam Catholic church, where President Diem sought refuge and prayed right before he was assassinated in 1963.  Our President Kennedy had been withdrawing from Vietnam but was also assassinated around the same time and American intervention escalated.  I sat in the same pew that he had and said a prayer for all the dead soldiers on both sides.

Our next stop was the Thien Hau Temple, the oldest Chinese-built pagoda in the city, dedicated to the goddess of the seas and protector of fishermen and sailors.  After that we walked to the Quan Am Pagoda, a Chinese-style Buddhist temple featuring beautiful courtyard, gardens, a pond and a Jade Emperor.  Incense was intense at both temples.

Our final stop was the Central Park, where it was the
final day of the Flower Fair, a Tet tradition.  They had kiddie rides, a lot of bonsai, and flowers everywhere.  They played "Gangnam Style" on the loudspeaker and I watched the little Vietnamese kids do their best Psy imitations.  The best and worst of international culture pervades the planet.